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Gatens, Hawks enjoy being “right in the thick of things”

[ 1 ] February 8, 2012 |

Postseason play isn’t all that senior guard Matt Gatens has missed out on since joining the Iowa basketball team in 2008.

He also hasn’t played for an Iowa team that’s won three Big Ten games in a row or that’s had at least a .500 record in conference play at any point in the month of February.

However, that would change if Iowa defeats Northwestern on Thursday.

Iowa is coming off back-to-back victories over Minnesota and Penn State and will bring records of 13-11 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten into Thursday’s 8 p.m. game at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill.

“We’re making strides and we’re right in the thick of things,” Gatens said. “We have seven games left now and anything can happen.

“We just have to keep taking it one game at a time, prepare for one team at a time and try to go get one on Thursday.”

Northwestern also has won its last two games, including a 74-70 victory at Illinois on Sunday. The Wildcats are trying to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, but they have little margin for error with records of 14-8 overall and 4-6 in the Big Ten.

Northwestern also has little depth as evidenced by head coach Bill Carmody only using six players in each of the past two games.

But it helps when one of those players is 6-foot-9 senior forward John Shurna, who leads the Big Ten in scoring with a 19.6 per-game average. Shurna scored 24 points in the victory over Illinois, including 17 in the second half.

“From the minute I got here he has been phenomenally impressive when you talk about consistency,” second-year Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said of Shurna. “And the thing about him is he plays at such a great energy level. Everybody’s focused on stopping him. And yet he always seems to be open. And if he’s open he puts it in the hole.

“But I think this year he has played with the confidence level of a guy who expects to be a first-team all-league player, a guy who wants to play when he’s done at Northwestern. And I think that’s really helped that team.”

Shurna with his 24-point effort against Illinois moved past former center Evan Eschmeyer into second place on Northwestern’s all-time scoring list with 1,787 career points.

Shurna’s supporting cast is led by 6-5 junior swingman Drew Crawford, who is also one of the conference’s top scorers at more than 17 points per game.

Former walk-on Reggie Hearn scored a career-high 20 points in the victory over Illinois and freshman point guard Dave Sobolewski is ranked first in the Big Ten and third nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.36.

Sobolewski and Iowa forward Aaron White were both named Big Ten co-freshmen of the week on Monday. Sobolewski scored 14 points and had zero turnovers while playing the entire 40 minutes against Illinois on Sunday.

“If you look at them right now they’re a team that I think is making a run to get in the NCAA Tournament legitimately,” McCaffery said. “They’ve got some real quality wins. They had a great non-conference part of their schedule, and I think right now, they’re probably playing as well as they’ve been playing all year long.”

You could the same about Iowa senior point guard Bryce Cartwright. He has struggled at times this season, but now is regaining the form that helped him lead the conference in assists in conference games last season.

Cartwright matched his season best of 17 points in the victory over Penn State last Saturday. He also grabbed seven rebounds and had five assists and just one turnover.

“It’s huge,” Gatens said of getting Cartwright back on track. “His decisions on the break are great. He’s really playing an all-around game and his defense is stepping up.

“We need him. And that’s shown in these last few games.”

Northwestern swept Iowa last season and has won four of the last five games overall against the Hawkeyes, including the last three in a row. Ten of the last 13 games between Iowa and Northwestern have been decided by 10 points or less, with seven of those games decided by five points or less.

Northwestern has also won six of the last seven games against Iowa at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Three of those victories came on last-second shots.

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Pat Harty: Columnist Pat Harty has been covering the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Press-Citizen since 1991. Originally from Des Moines, he currently writes columns and covers Hawkeye men's basketball for Hawk Central. View author profile.

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